Introduction to the Pilgrimage Places of India


India is a vast country, peopled with diverse and ancient civilizations, and its religious geography is highly complex. To grasp the complexity of the situation, it is important to consider two aspects of Indian life: its characteristic of being an ethnic and cultural mosaic, and the ancient rural foundations of many of its religious and cultural patterns.

The process of racial and cultural mixture that began in India 5000-10,000 years ago has been continuous into historical times. Although isolated from the rest of Asia by oceans on three sides and impassable mountain ranges to the north, India has experienced a near-constant influx of differing cultural influences, coming by way of the northwest and the southeast (including extremely ancient migrations from the drowned continent of Sundaland, which had been in the general region of contemporary Indonesia). India in the third millennium BC was inhabited in the tropical south by a people called the Dravidians, in the central and northeastern regions by aboriginal hill and forest tribes, and in the northwest by the highly advanced Indus Valley civilization known as the Harappan culture.

The religion of the city-building Harappan peoples seems to have been a fertility cult centered on the Great Mother, while the rural Dravidians and the various tribal cultures worshipped a wide variety of nature spirits, both benevolent and demonic. Anthropological theories of the 1800’s and 1900’s (deriving from a biased Eurocentric outlook) stated that around 1800 BC a nomadic people, called the Aryans, entered northwest India from the steppes of Central Asia. A large amount of archaeological, scriptural, linguistic and mythological research conducted during the past few decades has now shown this earlier theory to be inaccurate. While it is certainly true that migrations of different cultural groups did enter India from the northwest during ancient times, it is now abundantly clear that a highly sophisticated culture had already been thriving in the Indus valley region long before the supposed entrance of the hypothetical invaders from Central Asia.

What these archaic people already living in northwest India called themselves we do not know, but the term ‘Aryans’ is no longer considered suitable for them. Current scholarship has accepted the term ‘Harappan’ following the naming of one of that culture’s great cities as Harappa in the early 1900’s. Scholars have also significantly pushed back the date of the Harappan culture to approximately 3000 BC (or earlier), rendering it simultaneous with the oldest cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Harappan culture possessed a sophisticated religion called Vedism (again, we do not know what the people themselves called their religion), which worshipped powerful gods such as Indra, the god of rain; Agni, the god of fire; and Surya, the sun god. During the millennia of the Harappan culture the religion of Vedism developed an increasingly complex form with esoteric rituals and magical chants, and these were later codified in the sacred Hindu texts known as the Vedas.

The religion identified as Hinduism did not actually appear until the centuries preceding the Christian era. Hinduism is an aggregation of the religious beliefs and practices deriving from the Vedism and fertility cults of the Harappan peoples, and the animistic, shamanistic, and devotional practices of the widely varying, rural-dwelling indigenous cultures of south, central, and eastern India. Adding to and further enriching this mix were the concurrently developing religions of Jainism and Buddhism. Indian culture has thus developed a fascinating collection of religious beliefs and customs that range from simple animistic worship of nature spirits in a common rock or tree to the complex, highly codified Brahmanic rituals practiced at the great pilgrimage centers.

In India we find the oldest continually operating pilgrimage tradition in the entire world. The practice of pilgrimage in India is so deeply embedded in the cultural psyche and the number of pilgrimage sites is so large that the entire subcontinent may actually be regarded as one grand and continuous sacred space. Our earliest sources of information on the matter of sacred space come from the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda. While the act of pilgrimage is not specifically discussed in these texts, mountain valleys and the confluences of rivers are spoken of with reverence, and the merits of travel to such places are mentioned. Following the Vedic period the practice of pilgrimage seems to have become quite common, as is evident from sections of the great epic, the Mahabharata (350 BC), which mentions more than 300 sacred sites spanning the sub-continent. It is probable that most of these sites had long been considered sacred by the aboriginal inhabitants of the region and only later came to be listed in the Mahabharata as different regions came under the influence of Hinduism. By the time of the writing of the Puranas (sacred texts of the 2nd to 15th centuries AD), the number of sacred sites listed had grown considerably, reflecting both the ongoing assimilation of aboriginal sacred places and the increased importance of pilgrimage as a customary religious practice.

Hindus call the sacred places to which they travel tirthas, and the action of going on a pilgrimage tirtha-yatra. The Sanskrit word tirtha means river ford, steps to a river, or place of pilgrimage. In Vedic times the word may have concerned only those sacred places associated with water, but by the time of the Mahabharata, tirtha had come to denote any holy place, be it a lake, mountain, forest, or cave. Tirthas are more than physical locations, however. Devout Hindus believe them to be spiritual fords, the meeting place of heaven and earth, the locations where one crosses over the river of samsara (the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth) to reach the distant shore of liberation. Writing in Banaras: City of Light, Diana Eck speaks of tirthas as being

...primarily associated with the great acts and appearances of the gods and heroes of Indian myth and legend. As a threshold between heaven and earth, the tirtha is not only a place for the upward crossings of people's prayers and rites, it is also a place for the downward crossings of the gods. These divine descents are the well-known avataras of the Hindu tradition. Indeed, the words tirtha and avatara come from related verbal might say that the avataras descend, opening the doors of the tirthas so that men and women may ascend in their rites and prayers.

Although tirthas are primarily those places where a god or goddess or some spirit has dwelled or is still dwelling, there is another reason certain places may be accorded sanctity in the Hindu tradition. Saintly individuals who lead exemplary lives imbue their environments with the holiness that accrues from their spiritual practices. Devotees who had visited the saints while they were alive often continued to seek inspiration in the same places after the saint had died. Over many centuries, folk tales about the lives of the saints attained legendary proportions, attracting pilgrims from great distances. If miracles were reported at the shrine, the saint's legends would spread across the entire country, attracting still more pilgrims.

In India all temples are considered sacred places and thus religious visitors to the temples may be described as pilgrims. For the purpose of our discussion, however, for a temple to be considered a true pilgrimage shrine it must have a long-term history of attracting pilgrims from a geographic area beyond its immediate region. Given this condition, the number of pilgrimage sites in India is still extremely large; one text, the Kalyana Tirthanka, describes 1,820 shrines of importance.

Based on years of research and pilgrimage in India, I have chosen a smaller number of shrines, approximately 150, as the primary pilgrimage sites. Those sites include the Four Dhams or Divine Abodes at the four compass points; the Seven Sacred Cities and their primary temples; the Jyotir, Svayambhu, and Pancha Bhutha Linga temples; the Shakti Pitha temples; the Kumbha Mela sites; major Vaishnava sites; the Nava Graha Sthalas (temples of the planets); the seven sacred rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Narmada, Kaveri, and the Sarayu); the four Mutts of Sri Adi Sankaracharya (Badrinath/Joshimath, Puri, Sringeri, and Dwarka); the Arupadaividu (the six sacred places of Lord Kumara); and certain other shrines that do not fit into any of the categories listed here.

In discussing pilgrimage places in the Hindu tradition, it is important to say a few words about the number and diversity of deities in Hinduism and about the iconic and aniconic forms in which those deities are found. The personification of the mysterious forces of the universe into the anthropomorphic deities of the Hindu tradition involves both a convergence into certain supreme deities (the main three deities today are the gods Shiva and Vishnu and the goddess Shakti) and a splintering into a myriad of lesser deities. Certain writers call this polytheism, but the term is inaccurate in this case. No Hindu seriously believes in the multiplicity of gods but rather is aware that each of the many gods and goddesses are merely aspects of the One God (who is also the god of all other religions). The majority of Hindus ally their beliefs with one or the other of the three cults, worshipping Shiva, Vishnu, or Shakti as the highest principle. In doing so they do not deny the existence of the other two deities but regard them as complementary, though minor, expressions of the same divine power. Hinduism is thus, in its essence, monotheistic; a Hindu's worship of a particular personal deity is always done with the awareness that all deities are simply representations of one unconditioned, transcendental, supreme existence, known as Brahman. Each of the greater and lesser deities is understood as a sort of window or lens through which the whole of reality may be glimpsed.

The primary intention of a pilgrim's visit to a holy site is to receive the darshan of the deity resident in the temple's inner sanctum or open-air shrine. The word darshan, difficult to translate into English, generally means the pilgrim having a sight and/or experience of the deity. Hindus believe that the deity is actually manifest in the image, statue, or icon of the temple. To receive the darshan of the deity is to have a spiritual communion with it. The image of the deity may either be an iconic, or representational, image that bears some resemblance to its mythic subject; or an aniconic form that merely symbolizes the deity.

In a large number of celebrated shrines in India there are no beautiful statues of the gods and goddesses to be found, rather only aniconic blocks of stone or stumps of wood. This tradition of aniconic images derives from the rural folk religions of ancient India and bears witness to the great antiquity of the sanctity of certain places. The shrine in its initial phase may have been only a crude little hut covering a stone that both represented and contained some spirit of the natural world. As millennia passed and the small rural village slowly grew into a larger and larger town, both the myths concerning the stone and the shrine surrounding that stone were richly elaborated. It is therefore important when studying or visiting the monumental pilgrimage shrines of India to remember that many of them had their architectural genesis in the simple nature sanctuaries of the archaic rural folk.

The myths and legends of these sacred places have their roots in the ancient peoples' felt experience of the characteristics or qualities of the natural place. The various mythological personality characteristics of the deities in pilgrimage shrines may therefore be interpreted as metaphors for the way in which the spirit of the place has affected human beings. This spirit of place is not just a fanciful story, it is an actuality, an energy, a presence that touches human beings and affects them profoundly. Why are certain places said to be the dwelling place of a feminine deity and others the dwelling place of a masculine deity? Is it not perhaps because some ancient rural people, deeply in touch with the earth as a living entity, sensed either a feminine or masculine presence at a place and spoke about it in anthropomorphic terms? These terms were then given representational form by the artistic rendering of a statue or image.

Looking deeper into this matter, let us then ask why there are not simply male and female deities but, more precisely, why there are different kinds of male and female deities? Conventional explanations refer to such things as the fanciful human imagination, the rich and varied proto-religious inputs into formative Hinduism, and prehistoric deification of charismatic human figures into legendary archetypes. While all these things did occur, they are not the only explanations. The central premise of my theory is that the different personality characteristics of the deities derive from the various characteristics of the Earth spirit as it manifests at different geographical locations. To understand the quality, character or power of a specific place, we need only study the nature of the deity enshrined there. Encoded in the deity's mythological form is a clear message indicating how a particular sacred site may affect us.

Sign at temple, Bangalore

Sri Yantra

For additional information:

Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study of pilgrimage traditions and sacred sites around the world. During a 40 year period he has visited more than 2000 pilgrimage places in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide at is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.

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